Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson

by Robert A. Parker

This 2007 work is a difficult novel to digest. I was drawn to it because it is about the Vietnam War and has received extensive praise. But I find that it is not my kind of novel. It is not about people, but about experiences. And while these are brilliantly described experiences, they are disconnected. For one thing, we jump back and forth between the experiences of the two male characters. For another, we jump ahead continually in time.

The first character is Skip Sands, part of a nebulous CIA operation and nephew of the legendary Colonel Sands, an Edward Lansdale type of character. The second is James Houston, an enlisted soldier in Vietnam and his brother Bill. In both these relationships, Skip and James admire their family counterparts and earn our sympathy and identification, but both also end up on the wrong side of the law. This novel is about why that happens, but their sad fates also frustrate the reader’s need to identify with these characters.

In other words, the message of this novel is the harm that this war did to young men, and by implication to society at large. Not simply because of the reason the U.S. forces were in Vietnam, but because of their actions once there. And in this novel, these actions are quite disorganized. Which has resulted, for me, in a disorganized novel. I ended up reading a novel about those actions rather than a novel about the evolution of these characters. That is, both Skip and James are completely different people at the end of this novel, and it is not clear how or why they changed. Yes, the war, in general, caused it, but the reader does not experience the internal change in each one, only the disorganized experiences that seem to have prompted it.

Moreover, those experiences were, for me, too unpleasant, as well as too disconnected, to draw me into this novel. Yes, the author is showing that they were unpleasant in order to make his point. But they reflect too much for me the modern novelists’ detachment from his characters—resorting to a brilliant objectivity that, for me, inserts a barrier between myself and the characters I am reading about. And I acknowledge that for some this is a positive result. They admire such objectivity. But I wonder if it is because they do not approach the reality they describe with social, spiritual, or moral standards.

B. R. Myers writes a devastating review in The Atlantic, which makes me more comfortable in my reaction, but that review concentrates on Johnson’s writing style more than on its content. Whereas, I was more impressed by the vividness of the style that so often put me in the actual scene. I sensed that the specifics meant that Johnson himself had been to Vietnam and witnessed/experienced that life and that landscape. Which seems to say that, for me, the vividness of the style overwhelmed Myers’ critique of the felicities of style.

Geoff Dyer in The Guardian also sums up this novel: “Johnson is all over the place and he is an artist of strange diligence. It is as if his skewed relationship to the sentence – not really knowing what one is and yet knowing exactly what to do with it – operates, here, at the level of structure. Tree of Smoke is as excessive and messy as Moby Dick. Anything further removed from the tucked-up, hospital corners school of British fiction is hard to imagine. It’s a big, dirty, unmade bed of a book and, once you settle in you’re in no hurry to get out.”

That’s me, caught up in each adventure, that is, until it seemed to go nowhere. Thus, the title, Tree of Smoke, the name of a CIA project, is never explored. And the project is as amorphous as the rest of these disconnected events. Speaking of disconnections, the novel ends with Kathy, a nurse with whom Skip has a brief affair—she appears sporadically, unlinked to other events, throughout the novel—giving a speaking engagement in St. Paul years later. And it is she who expresses the novel’s final line: “All will be saved. All will be saved.” Huh? That upbeat seems to come from nowhere.

Perhaps my fascination with the vivid events of this novel, combined with a struggle to get through it, is best captured by David Ignatius in The Washington Post: “This novel makes large demands on the reader: to submit to its length, to its disorienting language and structure, to the elusive and shattering experience of its characters, and finally to its sheer ambition to be definitive, an encompassing novel for the Vietnam generation. It is a presumptuous book, in other words, and you may resist for the first several hundred pages. But it will grab you eventually, and gets inside your head like the war it is describing — mystifying, horrifying, mesmerizing.”

Yes, this novel jumps around too much for me. From Bill to Skip, from Bill to James, from Skip to the colonel’s lieutenants, and then to Kathy. Also, from year to year, and then to a decade later. All is disconnected. How does Skip get blamed for the colonel’s failed plans? Why does he then turn criminal? Why does James also turn criminal after he comes home to his brother? Why does Kathy lose her faith in God but not in man? I suggest the Vietnam War is too simple an explanation for all this. Especially for a novel that does not get inside its characters.

Johnson’s favorite milieu appears to be the underside of life, whether in the military or back home. And Vietnam offers a fine opportunity to enter that world, both the American world of an ineffectual CIA or military mission and the Vietnam world’s interchangeable allegiances. One should note that there is no military action here for a war novel, no actual spy missions for its espionage atmosphere, only talk and planning and new talk and new planning, a year later, to new off-screen developments. There are also long journeys through nature, but no climactic revelations, no missions accomplished. There are only mysterious assassins, mysterious loners, and the mysterious Vietnamese culture.

Matterhorn remains my favorite novel about the Vietnam War. We follow our soldiers actually fighting. They have a mission. And they succeed or they fail. And react accordingly. (January, 2017)

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